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Ex-Florida A&M band leader: I sought crackdown

On Thursday, Florida A&M University today dismissed four students in connection with the death of a member of the school's marching band. Twenty-six-year-old Robert Champion died last month and police say hazing was involved. CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann looks at the investigation involving one of the nation's most famous marching bands.

The Marching 100 is the face of Florida A&M: high-energy precision performers who have played at presidential inaugurations and Super Bowls.

But the death last month of 26-year-old drum major Robert Champion exposed a scourge the band's longtime director, Dr. Julian White, admits he could not control.

"Would you agree there was a culture of hazing? Strassman asked White.

"There is a culture of hazing," he responded.

White became head band director in 1998. But he was fired four days after Champion was found unresponsive in the band bus.

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"When they were giving him CPR, he was on the bus?" Strassman asked.

"Yes," said White.

"Was he conscious?


The cause of death is still under investigation. But police who interviewed band members believe hazing is to blame. White suspects Champion was beaten in a hazing ritual.

For years, White said he tried to crack down on hazing with workshops and a zero-tolerance policy. But he could not break the band's secret, abusive culture.

"The saxophones are Gestapo," said White. "The clarinets are Clones."

"It's like gang names," commented Strassman.


"Were they like gangs to you that you had to get under control?

"Yes, they were like gangs."

Over the years, White estimates he threw out 100 band members for hazing. He showed CBS News dozens of letters he says he sent to administrators pleading for a tougher response.

"More students should have been terminated from school," White told Strassman.

"Did you push for that, and in some cases not get it?

"Yes, yes."

"You pushed -- 'Get rid of these kids. Bad news.'"

"'They're bad news.'"

"And the response was?"

"The response was, 'We're gonna rehabilitate. We're gonna give them counseling.'"

Just 10 days before Champion's death, White suspended 26 band members for suspected hazing and reported them to the university for rituals such as paddling. It was right before the band's biggest performance of the year.

"I think the university could have not allowed the band to perform at the Florida Classic," said White.

"Had you recommended that?" Strassman asked.

"It was recommended and I supported it. However, the decision was beyond those attending the meeting."

"In other words, the top university officials said the band will perform the show will go on?"

"There was never any question that the band would not perform," said White.

Robert Champion was found on the band bus after that game. Florida A&M officials declined CBS' repeated requests for an interview, but said in a statement, "The university took appropriate action when it was notified [of specific hazing incidents] ... More than anything we want to find out what happened to Robert Champion."

"Shouldn't someone have done more?" Strassman asked White.

"I think more could have been done. I feel very comfortable I did all I could. I'm not proud that I lost one of my children."

Robert Champion was to become the band's head drum major next year.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.